Language / Technology

iDecolonize: Indigenous language-learning mobile apps

Rising Voices, a project of Global Voices Online, republished a version of this post on their site. 

Before I travelled to Nunavut, I was obsessed with Inuktitut syllabics, determined to master a language I found both syntactically fascinating and phonetically impossible. Surprisingly, Texas offered no possibility of one-on-one Inuktitut tutoring.

Luckily, I had a private tutor to take with me everywhere I went.

The Tusalaanga Inuktitut-learning iPhone app was my introduction to what has become a slow proliferation of smartphone technology aimed at revitalizing endangered and marginalized languages. When I arrived here in remote Aboriginal Australia, the media organization I am working with expressed interest in mobile apps. We began comparing existing apps, but I realized that no one had compiled a complete list of them, let alone reviewed their features. So I decided to have a go at it myself.

You’ll see that many of these apps fall into one of several categories: interactive dictionaries, phrase books, didactic games, and “digital museums” of culture and language. Regardless of the format of these apps, I think it is important not to view technology as a closed system, but instead a tool both effected by and affecting networks of people, places, and social norms. Mobile apps alone will not “save” endangered languages, as headlines often assert; cultural restoring work cannot depend on a string of code. They can serve as a tool, although arguably not the most powerful, in a portfolio of language conservation efforts. Communities have to be excited about language-learning before they are excited about language-learning apps.

For starters, developers and communities must think about targeted users: if the goal is to instruct non-indigenous peoples about indigenous language, are users provided with relevant and culturally appropriate vocabulary? If the goal is to revive language within communities, do local people have access to necessary mobile technologies and the Internet? Have they been informed about the app, its purpose, and its functions? Better yet – did they help design it? Does the app take into account the possibility of illiterate users? How will the app continue to be relevant in the future of rapidly developing mobile technologies? Could it be incorporated into existing community programs in schools or other institutions? The list goes on.

Unfortunately, I find that people tend to jump to app development as a saving force without thinking about these long-term, user-side questions.

The list below is by no means exhaustive, but I hope it will serve communities wishing to conceptualize the options for developing their own mobile programs. I tended to stick with well-known and/or free apps and avoided pure dictionary apps. I evaluate them not as a linguist or an expert in each language, but as a user interested in the breadth of possibilities for presenting content. You can download the apps by clicking on the app names below. 

My top picks

App name: Tusaalanga

Language: Inuktitut (Eastern Canada)

Developer: Pirurvik Centre

This is a great package for people serious about language learning. It feels like an interactive textbook. First of all, it allows you to select one of five different Inuktitut dialects so you can make sure you’re not saying qujannamiik in Iqaluit or nakurmiik in Igloolik. Next, it features lessons centered around a recorded and  dialogue transcript. You can review a relevant vocabulary list and a grammar index for the lessons. The personal glossary allows you to record and store words that are important to you. The syllabics and sounds charts helps you break down the pronunciation and master the syllabics. While the set-up is a bit more “academic” (some of the grammar guides might overwhelm beginners), it is one of the most thorough apps around. Note that this is a very large download; I had to wait a while the first time I installed for it to open. This might not be the best choice for interactive learners who absorb information through interactive games, flash cards, etc. I also like that this app skips the cheap clip art and ops to feature design elements from Inuit culture.

App name: Sharing The Dreaming

Language: Nyoongar (Western Australia)

Developer: Zero41 Software, DEC Aboriginal Heritage Unit

Okay so this isn’t a strictly language-learning app, but it’s almost better. The app, like a proper visit to an Aboriginal community, begins with an acknowledgement of country asking users to recognize the traditional Nyoongar people. While the Language portion of the app contains a humble list and audio recordings of Nyoongar words, more meaningful perhaps are the sections that walk users through Nyoongar Dreaming, Art symbols and Seasons. The Dreaming section features nine narrated stories in English, transcripts and beautiful still art. The design is clean and full of easy-to-navigate information about local customs and traditions. Bravo on creating a holistic app that guides users through key aspects of Aboriginal culture. I can’t find much history or background on the app, so I’d be interested to learn the extent to which community supported and provided input into its development.

App name: Ma!iwaidja

Language: Iwaidja (Croker Island, Australia)

Developer: Iwaidja Inyman

This is a pretty nifty, compact app, and much-needed for a language with only 200 or so speakers. The searchable dictionary autogenerates with each letter you type (similar to your “Contacts” book) and you can search in either English or Iwaidja. The “phrases” section houses practical conversation that appear in English, Iwaidja and a transliterated Iwaidja that guides pronunciation. The phrases are as extensive as they are useful. (Kanayanjing ba warrkbi rurlukba ijalkud burruli! – Look at that man. He’s a great dancer! Ngabi nganaldahardama Iwaidja – I’m learning to speak Iwaidja.) The slot-machine styled Wordmaker feature allows users to combine various language elements (possessive pronoun, noun, quantity) to grasp the syntactical patterns (which affixes go with which subjects and how do you denote plural versus singular?) Although the website states that the Wordmaker includes verb conjugations, I can only see possessive body parts (strange). A verb conjugator would be most useful. I did have some issues getting the audio to play from time to time, but overall, it’s a thorough and well-researched app. According to their website, they plan to unveil a new version soon.

App name: My Cree

Language: Cree (Canada)

Developer: Nehiyawetan Productions

This app is a bit visually overwhelming at first (especially on a small iPhone/iPod screen), but provides a wealth of information once you adapt to the layout.  The “Basics” section breaks down the main Cree consonant and vowel sounds. The Words feature provides flashcards with English, Cree, and audio. You can test your knowledge with a quiz in each category. Phrases also include audio and a breakdown of the key and related words. The related words is helpful to learners who easily confuse similar terms and expressions. And thrown in for good measure is a database of four Cree music videos – fun for everyone! (The videos do make the app quite large though, at 228 MB).

App name: NT Languages - Anindilyakwa

Language: Anindilyakwa (Groote Eylandt, Australia)

Developer: NT Library (i-STORIES) with AIRemote Pty Ltd and Disparity Games

This app is designed as a bilingual literacy tool and features everyday words in Anindilyakwa and English. Interestingly, it incorporates videos of the traditional hand signs used by Aboriginal people, so you can learn two languages at once. The flashcard-style layout is simple and effective. While you won’t become conversational with this app, you will learn key phrases that could come in handy when visiting Groote. Hand signs, a manually-coded counterpart to spoken language – are being rapidly lost in Aboriginal communities, so this app helps preserve a bit of dwindling form of communication.

IMG_1866

App name: Kura

Language: Māori (New Zealand)

Developer: Victoria University’s Faculty of Education (Te Kura Māori)

I had a bit of trouble getting this app to load on my iPhone, although to their credit, the Kura app includes a disclaimer that it takes time (and an internet connection) to load the first time you open it. I love this app, in part because I can’t entirely evaluate it: it targets people already somewhat proficienct in te reo Māori. Most indigenous language apps overlook this critical immediate crowd of users. Often young indigenous speakers lack confidence in their skills or mix native language with elements of the dominant language. The folks behind Kura Māori hope to engage these speakers to have fun with and strengthen their te reo skills. The app features a number of imaginative interactive games, each of which builds upon the previous to gradually advance language level. You can even customize a digital “persona” and compete against friends and other users.

App name: Hika lite

Language: Māori (New Zealand)

Developer: Hika Group

This app is a lot of fun. It features twelve categories of language from Days of the Week to Spiritual Protocol. I like that you can click an info button to learn about these categories within the context of Māori culture (“Singing to guests after saying your Hika Welcome reinforces your words of welcome).  Selecting a category takes users to a screen divided into four sections (parts of speech), which users swipe with a finger to interchange phrases and form a sentence. Users can click to hear each part of speech individually or play the sentence in entirety. This is the only app I’ve found that allows you to select a female or a male indigenous speaker for audio recordings. I could spend hours remixing these phrases, which the app allows users to share via SMS or email. This is a fun way to learn different phrases, although it might be difficult for systematic visual learners to pick up on the finer points of Maori grammar using this app.

Profile: FirstVoices Chat

Developer: First People’s Cultural Council (First Voices)

You can’t talk apps without talking FirstVoices. FirstVoices, a Canadian company, is the pioneer in allowing indigenous language speakers to interface with popular written media (Facebook, Gmail) in their native language. According to their site, FirstVoices Chat is a “multilingual texting app with keypads serving over 100 Indigenous languages. The app was developed in response to First Nation youth who want to communicate via social media in their own languages.” The app includes languages from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the US.

Note: FirstVoices has helped develop bilingual dictionary apps for twelve indigenous languages including Haida, Tsilhqot’in, Sliammon (Comox), Halq’eméylem and others. These basic apps include word lists, audio, and sometimes pictures.

Other apps

App name: SimiDic Aymara Quechua Guaraní

Languages: Aymara, Quechua, and Guaraní (South America)

Developer: El Instituto de Lenguas Y Literaturas Andinas-Amazónicas

So I said I would avoid straight dictionary apps, I think this one is significant because, as you might have noticed, most app activity is currently limited to the US, Canada, and Australia/New Zealand. SimiDic is a project that aims to digitize languages of the Andes and Amazon of South America. The three-in-one app provides a searchable dictionary for the three major languages above, which actually would have been helpful during my travels in Perú. I also know these folks are doing great work to translate FireFox and other software into indigenous languages. Congrats to the small and passionate team at ILLA – espero ver más apps para lenguas indígenas de América Latina pronto!

App name: Yugambeh

Language: Yugambeh (Queensland, Australia)

Developer: Yugambeh Museum, Language and Heritage Research Center

Features searchable dictionary, categorized words and phrases with audio, and pictionary by letter.

App name: Ojibway

Language: Ojibway (Anishinaabe)

Developer: Ogoki Learning Systems Inc.

This app features a wealth of vocabulary categories from greetings to medicine to body parts. The major downfall of this app, for visual phonetic learners like me, is that the Anishinaabe language never actually appears. Users click on English phrases which are then spoken, translated, in Anishinaabe. I would have liked to see transcripts or subtitles in the written language. Likewise, the Syllabics tab does little to teach the user the sounds of each syllabic symbol — words are listed in English with their syllabic transcription at right. I also appreciate the cultural background provided on the app; the People portion provides history on treaties, history and prominent Anishinaabe people, although I can’t get it to work on my device. One thing I DO love about Ogoki Learning Systems is that they’ve provided their full source-code so other indigenous communities can create their own apps using the Ojibway template. This is a great option for communities who lack the technical support to develop their own app from scratch. The Blackfeet Language app (below) used the Ogoki script.

App name: Konkow Toddler

Language: Konkow (California, USA)

Developer: tinkR’ Labs

Konkow is a dialect of the Maiduan Language; it is so endangered that the developers relied on 1940s audio recordings to populate this app. According to Wikipedia, only two or three people remain who speak it as a first language. This app is designed for children, so it includes a basic vocabulary in six categories: numbers, food, body parts, animals, colors and phrases. English, Konnkow (written and spoken), and also features a game mode where users must match the sound/work with the corresponding correct picture. The interactive flashcard interface is clean, colorful and artistic, good for visual learnings and – of course – children.

App name: Navajo Toddler

Language: Navajo/Diné (Southwest USA)

Developer: tinkR’ Labs

This app features the same layout as the Konkow Toddler app, but includes more categories, words and keeps count of correct guesses in the game.

App name: Inuvialuktun One

Language: Inuvialuktun (NWT, Canada)

Developer: Government of Northwest Territories Department of Education, Culture and Employment, and the Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre (plus Thornton Media Inc.)

Thorton Media is a Cherokee-owned media company in Las Vegas, Nevada and produced some of the first indigenous apps to hit the iTunes store back in 2009. Their work in the NWT was featured by Apple themselves in this beautiful 2013 Developer’s Video. They seem to have produced a few language apps, although I don’t list all their products here. The Inuvialuktun app reading, writing, and listening quizes, games, a searchable database, greetings, and a record your voice function (not to mention, the adorable pictures from actual community members).

According to Don Thorton, about half of Thorton Media’s clients use limited distribution to community members, so the apps don’t appear in the iTunes store — this would explain how I missed so many of them my first go around. Thorton Media encourages clients to become Apple developers themselves (awesome), and Thorton does not retain ownership of cultural property.  You can read more about Thorton Media’s 4-step process to app creation here.

App name: Dakota free (free) / Dakota One ($9.99)

Langauge: Dakota (primarily North and South Dakota, USA)

Developer: Marty Indian School and Thornton Media Inc.

The priced version of this app features over 700 sound files and images in 25 categories. Like the Inuvialuktun app, it includes photos of actual Dakota speakers and community members. It also includes games (easy, medium, and hard), quizzes, quizzes for speaking, writing and reading, as well as a function to email yourself your game scores. The app is also infused with cultural information, found in the “Dakota lifeways,” and “clanship” categories. Proceeds from the app go directly to local language revitalization efforts… what’s not to love?

App name: Ho Chunk (Hoocąk) Native American Language

Language: Hoocąk (Mainly Wisconsin and Minnesota, USA)

Developer: Thorton Media Inc. and the Ho Chunk Nation

This app, as well as the others created by Thorton Media, feature word lists with audio and games (easy, medium and hard) to practice newly learned language.

App name: Blackfeet Language

Language: Nitsipowahsin (Montana, USA)

Developer: Blackfeet Community College

Uses the Ojibway layout. Features English text and Nitsipowahsin audio for five categories of words.

App name: SeeHearSay

Language: Diné/Lakota/Mvskoke/Ponca

Developer: Native American Public Telecommunications

This app has received a lot of criticism for limited vocabulary and using non-native speakers for audio recordings. Perhaps we should file it away as a case-study in what not to do. Read about the criticism  at Indian Country.

App name: Cherokee Lite (free) / Cherokee Native American Language Basic ($9.99)

Language: Cherokee (Oklahoma)

Developer: Thornton Media, Inc.

The free lite version is fairly limited in language scope, but features phrases and audio in nine different categories.

App name: iCherokee

Language: Cherokee (Oklahoma)

Developer: Cherokee Nation

This app features twelve categories of vocabulary: family, animals, clans, numbers, weather, etc. The basic flashcard interface is simple, but also incorporates Cherokee syllabary. I don’t, however, think the app is thorough enough for users to command written Cherokee. Some of the audio doesn’t play.

App name: Yati

Language: Tlicho Dene (NWT – Canada)

Developer: University of Victoria and Tlicho Community

This is mostly a dictionary app, but there’s a useful list of phrases with very clear audio. Here’s a list (pdf) of all the indigenous apps for Northwest Territories languages.

App name: Iñupiat Wordfinder

Language: North Slope Iñupiaq

Developer: North Slope Borough Iñupiat Heritage Center and University of Alaska Fairbanks

I like that this app features an Iñupiat “Word of the Day,” as well as a Share feature that allows you to share words or phrases via e-mail or social networks. Sharing a word links to an online dictionary. The interface is very intuitive, and it’s great for mid-level learners who just need to look up a word.

Do you know an indigenous-language app I didn’t list? Please get in touch with me! Happy i-learning!

21 thoughts on “iDecolonize: Indigenous language-learning mobile apps

  1. Pingback: iDecolonize: Indigenous language-learning mobile apps | Global …

  2. Thanks for a nice roundup of indigenous language apps. I have to note some inaccuracies in your review of Thornton Media Apps. Several of the apps you list were our 1st gen apps, the very first indigenous apps to appear in the iTunes Store in 2009. For a sample of 2nd Gen Apps we have been making for the last three years see ‘Dakota One’ ($9.99 with revenue going to clients language efforts). We encourage our clients to become Apple developers themselves ($99/yr) so the great majority do not appear on our developer page (we do not retain any ownership of cultural property). See Inuvialuktun (free) or any of the other 5 languages from Northwest Territories. About half our clients use limited distribution to community members only through B2B or Enterprise Distribution. They bypass the iTunes Store so you do not know about them. Our apps include many features not listed (Culture Notes section, reading/writing/listening quizzes, email scores, record your voice, searchable database with auto update and more). Our clients select what is on their app and we have a ridiculously high level of customization to individual communities. “Not a fan of cheap clip art”? We don’t use cheap clip art. Not sure what the writer means.

    Our work was recognized by Apple themselves in the Official 2013 Developer’s Video (3rd story): http://www.apple.com/ios/videos/

    • Hi Don,

      thanks for reading my list and for the very helpful information. I apologize for not reflecting the features and level of customization of your apps accurately. Part of this exercise was just to get indigenous communities and developers to come together to have a discussion, so I’m glad you’ve joined in. If it’s alright with you, I’d like to reflect your comments in my post. May I make those edits? Thanks, Rachael

      • Hi Rachael, Thanks for the changes.  Can you review Writing Cherokee? It is a one-of-a-kind app that teaches the Cherokee writing system. Thanks, Don

      • Hi Don, thanks for all the helpful information. I like that you all encourage your communities to be developers themselves, but it made it more difficult to know which apps were created with your support. Thanks for pointing me in the right direction.

        Congrats on the Apple feature. Keep an eye out – in my next “Indigenous Tech News Roundup” I’m going to feature the video – what a beautiful production!

        Keep up the great work,

        Rachael

  3. I would add SimiDic for android and iOS to the list, it comes with Aymra, Quechua and Guaraní dictionaries. Unfortunately they’re native-Spanish dictionaries not English, but SimiDic in concept is a good project to.
    Also thanks for sharing this great list with us. it’s a great one. lot of ideas came to my mind after reading your article.

    • Hi Pedro, thank you so much for the suggestion (echoed by A. Condori’s comments). I will definitely check out SimiDic and add it to the list. Feel free to send along any more of your ideas my way!

  4. Hi, Rachel. I belong to the Aymara Nation in the Andes. Every time I come across English-speaking sites on indigenous affairs I realize there’s a great divide between English-speaking native groups and non-English-speaking ones, as if they belonged to different spheres. For instance, there’s a wealth of indigenous nations in the Spanish-speaking Americas. Quechua native language in the Andes makes more that 10 million speakers which are living in language Apartheid regimes. We are invisible indigenous people as soon as we don’t speak English and we are not fully aknowledged by other fellow indigenous persons in the Americas.

    I think this mutual invisibility must be overcomed since we belong to the same history of colonized original peoples. Let’s not be divided by European languages. Let’s decolonize this way also.

    Please, check out this mobile app named SimiDic which was produced in Bolivia by Ketanolab https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.ketanolab.simidic which is also available for iPad and iPhone. Three major languages are represented in this app: Quechua, Aymara and Guaraní and they are aimed at including 13 minorized languages. They deserve a good check.

    Please, also take a look at this project http://runasimipi.org/index-en.php

    Thanks

    A. Condori

    • Hi A. Condori,

      this is a fantastic point and I totally agree. Part of this exercise was to be able to bring people around the world into dialogue and discover new projects, so I’m thrilled you brought this to my attention. Embarrassingly, I speak Spanish and Portuguese so I could have easily remedied this divide. However, thanks for bringing the Aymara app and I’ll add it shortly!

  5. Racheal

    Great to see that you have featured the newly developed Inuvialuktun languages app. Be sure to check out GNWT ECe’s Dene languages apps ((Tłı̨chǫ, Gwich’in, Dënesųlı̨ne, Sahtúot’ı̨nę, Dene Zhatıé). Elders and children have fun learning together!

    Dawn from the Northwest Territories

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  12. Hello
    Thank you for this great list. There is also kids’ app called “Gudeh” to learn the Dehcho Dene language (Dene Zhatie, or South Slavey) of the Northwest Territories of Canada, as well as a website Gudeh.com . The Gudeh app was released in 2013, and is available for free on Itunes App store.

    Thanks!

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